The Wells Report May Have Uncovered the Tip of the Iceberg

by Warren Sharp

As it turns out, numbers do tell a pretty good story.  In the immediate aftermath of the AFC Championship game, I began running numbers on the Patriots and the real reason why footballs might be deflated: so that they aren’t easily fumbled.

Over the course of one week, a simple research project turned into an intense investigation and my authoring of multiple articles on the subject:

As I was at the forefront of analyzing the data and presenting an analytical perspective of Deflategate, these articles drew a lot of interest.  They were picked up by Huffington Post and Slate.com, among others, and discussed by the Wall Street JournalYahoo! Sports wrote a very cool feature piece on my research process with quotes from me as well.

Ultimately, my two main conclusions from the research:

Point #1 –  Something occurred between 2006 and 2007 which allowed the Patriots to fumble the ball at an extremely low rate moving forward when compared to the rate their team fumbled from 2000-06 (Bill Belichick started coaching the team in 2000).

Point #2 –  Whatever occurred caused the Patriots to shift from a team who fumbled the football the league average (in 2000-2006) to a team who was so superior when compared any other team the odds it was a mere coincidence are extremely unlikely.

We also know one key piece of information:  In 2006, Tom Brady was one of the quarterbacks leading the charge to get the rule changed, so that road QBs could provide their own “worn in” game balls. And then, in 2007, the team became extremely fumble-averse.

One of the key graphics from the final story is below:

Days and months went by since the end of January as the Ted Wells report was being investigated, researched and written.  It finally was released today.  In it, a number of key findings, including that “it was more probably than not that”:

  • New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules
  • Tom Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.

There are a number of other conclusions that were drawn from the report, as well as other disturbing findings leading up to the Patriots AFC Championship game.

  • Their locker room attendant referred to himself as “the deflator”.
  • “The Deflator” was incentivized via money, clothing, tickets, etc.
  • He threatened to over-inflate the footballs multiple times in a joking manner, and said if he didn’t receive the bribes, the only thing that would be deflated would be Brady’s passer rating.  He also threatened to go “to espn”.

There are multiple games from 2014 where these comments were mentioned, such as games with the Packers, Bears and Jets.

The report also indicates that while Brady denied knowledge of or involvement in efforts to deflate game balls, these claims are not plausible.  Brady refused to let investigators look at his phone records or his emails.

We all knew that something happened with the AFC Championship game, but this report proves it wasn’t an act of nature or accidental.  This report also shows that it was happening prior to the AFC Championship game, which I did not expect to find.  My only comments last February about the potential findings of the Wells report were:

Regarding the pending results from the Ted Wells investigation:  I highly doubt such an investigation would go anywhere beyond the game vs the Colts, and if it did, I’d be shocked if it went anywhere outside the 2014 season.  I believe his task as it relates to the 11 of 12 footballs being under-inflated from that game is going to be extremely focused.  And whether it uncovers any foul play or not, that’s somewhat irrelevant in the grand scheme.  The data shows something occurred starting in 2007.  Whether or not Ted Wells does or does not find anything from one game in 2014 does not erase years of data which clearly indicate something occurred, even though that data can not, and does not, conclude that what occurred was cheating.

As I made it very clear in my research and analysis that though the numbers show something happened starting in 2007, it cannot prove deflated footballs were the cause.  Only that the Patriots suddenly became fumble-proof unlike any other team in the NFL, but we don’t know why.

The Wells report shows intent and action.  As for motive, that’s still speculative.  But a key reason any team would want to play with deflate footballs is they are more difficult to fumble.  And fewer fumbles equal more wins.  From a prior article:

Why are fumbles so important?  Because as Bill Belichick knows, perhaps more so than most NFL coaches due to his understanding of the game – turnovers usually control game outcomes.  Since 2000, teams who won the turnover battle won 79% of their games, regardless of ANY other statistic.  A 12-5 record equates to 75% wins, so its clear how vital turnovers are in the minds of intelligent coaches.  And as far as turnovers are concerned, the number one concern for a team with a quarterback as skilled and proficient as Tom Brady is not interceptions (because there won’t be many), its fumbles.

We will probably never find out the full extent of these transgressions.  At the time, I believed we never would have even learned as much as we did in this Wells report.  I was in the camp that they would not find any evidence, and would not punish anyone.  Now we’re hearing oddsmakers pulled down lines on betting for the Patriots in 2015 and there may be suspensions issued.  Eventually we will find what those punishments are.

In the meantime, I still hold firm in my position (which is further supported by this report) that something happened in the 2007 season which began to aide the Patriots in preventing fumbles, and that carried on thru the 2014-15 season.  I don’t believe the NFL has any desire to attempt an investigation back that far, nor do I believe they could find any evidence of anything significant.  But then again, I didn’t think the Wells report would result in any key findings or punishment.

The Patriots may have simply learned a new way to hold the football starting in 2007, and it wasn’t until 2014 that they started deflating footballs.  I (still) won’t say the Patriots became fumble-proof because of deflated footballs, because I don’t know.  I only have the data, and the data says “something” happened.  If, what the Wells report found from 2014 began to happen as early as 2007, than his report may have uncovered only the tip of the iceberg.

Note:  I wrote two other follow up articles to refute criticism for my conclusions.  You can read them HERE and HERE.

ADDITION:  It was fascinating to note that in late January, the website 538 wrote an article to comment on my own findings.  It appeared that instead of conducting their own research to comment on the merit of my findings, they first stated that “an outlier is not proof of cheating”.   Then they quoted a number of articles (Deadspin in particular) which shared the common characteristics of being written by admitted-Patriots fans and which did not ultimately refute either of my two key findings.

Since the Wells report was issued, 538 wrote a follow up piece, and finally looked at the data itself (about time).  Regarding my findings, they wrote:

…though it had flaws, at a very minimum that author correctly identified that the Patriots fumble rate has been absurdly small. I did my own calculations using binomial and Poisson models and found the same.

But the fun part is when you get all Bayesian about it. As I said at the time, the existence of the Patriots’ extremely low fumble rate, as a Bayesian matter, makes it much more likely that the Patriots were intentionally cheating – even though the link between fumble rates and inflation levels is only speculative. That’s the beauty of Bayesianism. But it gets better: Now that it seems likely that the Patriots were violating the rules to gain an advantage, the fact that they also had an extremely low fumble rate makes it more likely that the relationship between inflation levels and fumbling is real – and more likely that the Patriots have materially benefited from their cheating.

They even include this chart below indicating the odds of the Patriots fumbling at the rate they did “occurring by chance” was off the chart.

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Initially and (apparently) without conducting their own research, 538 concluded that my analysis was flawed, and further, was not proof the Patriots cheated just because it showed the Patriots were an outlier (clearly though, I never claimed it to be proof of cheating).  But today, after finding out that they did cheat from the Wells report, 538 agrees that the Patriots fumble rate was “absurdly small” and the numbers show that it is “much more likely that the Patriots were intentionally cheating” and “more likely that the Patriots have materially benefited from their cheating.”

Now that this issue is again at the center of the football universe, I’ve received tweets indicating “did you know your report was debunked by 538″ or “by Deadspin”, to which I reply that they never debunked either of my two main points.  But it simply would have been nice if 538, at the time, conducted their own analysis of the data (something I urged them to do) and commented on the issue after that point.  Because they would have come to the same conclusions that I did in January, which they are coming to now.  And that is its extremely unlikely the Patriots prevented fumbles by mere happenstance, and very likely the fumbles were prevented by (their words, not mine) “intentionally cheating”.

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